In order to give context to King Richard's life and the aftermath of his reign, this section of the website examines all these troubling aspects of the late fifteenth century. This brief history has been written specially for the website by the well-known historian and author Keith Dockray. The March from Leicester by Graham Turner Courtesy of Osprey Publishing Ltd The Wars of the Roses, so English historical tradition has it, were a series of bloody military conflicts dominating several decades during the second half of the fifteenth century.
Royal houses of Lancaster and York, dynastic rivals for possession of England's ancient crown, fought each other in battle after battle; the country's ruling elite, especially its powerful landowning aristocracy, split asunder in support of one or the other; and the lives of ordinary folk were turned upside down by endemic civil strife and its appalling political, economic and social consequences.
No wonder William Shakespeare, when writing his Plantagenet history plays for the London stage in the s, eagerly seized on the dramatic potential of so clear and compelling a story.
But is it true? Certainly, kings did fight a series of battles between and and the crown itself changed hands several times. A high percentage of the nobility, and many gentry, became involved at one time or another; thousands of countryfolk and townsmen made up the rank and file of armies; and hundreds of lives were undoubtedly lost. Yet it is all too easy to exaggerate both the scale and impact of these wars, particularly if comparisons are made with the First and Second World Wars in the twentieth century.
William Shakespeare engraving by Martin Broshuut, First Folio Courtesy Geoffrey Wheeler Phases of more or less sustained conflict, such as that between and , were very much the exception rather than the rule. Many nobles were either killed in the fighting or faced execution for having backed the wrong side, but few, if any, prominent families became extinct as a direct result of civil strife. Most people probably never became involved in the wars at all; material destruction was both intermittent and localised; agriculture and trade were only minimally disrupted; and the country's religious and cultural life continued to flourish throughout.
Why, at a time when Henry V's spectacular victory over the French at Agincourt in and subsequent conquest of most of northern France were still within living memory, did England dissolve into civil war at all? The main blame must fall on the shoulders of his son, the third Lancastrian king, Henry VI , surely the most inept and incompetent of all rulers of the English realm since the Norman Conquest of Maybe, given his personal piety and deep religious convictions, he might have made a decent enough monk but he had none of the qualities required for successful kingship in the fifteenth century: he had few political or man-management skills; he had no military prowess or capacity for generalship; and, after he suffered a complete mental collapse in , he probably became little more than a political cipher, all too easily manipulated by those around him.
He certainly could not hold a candle to Richard, Duke of York, no political genius himself, but who did have a strong claim to the throne and spearheaded opposition to the Lancastrian regime in the s.
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Even so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, if Henry VI had not been the man he was and if his government had not developed along the lines it did, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened. As early as February Henry VI's chief minister, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was impeached for treason and subsequently murdered; Jack Cade's rebellion, the most serious popular uprising since the Peasants' Revolt of , engulfed south-eastern England in May and June; and, in the autumn, Richard of York openly challenged the Lancastrian regime.
Early in , having failed to rock the government by constitutional means, Richard of York resorted to armed force. That failed too, but when the king suffered a sudden bout of severe mental illness in the summer of , York and his new northern aristocratic allies the Nevilles Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and his son Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick eventually emerged triumphant and the duke became protector of the realm in March It was a short-lived victory.
Henry Vl recovered at least most of his senses at the end of the year; York's protectorate was terminated soon after; and, now excluded from the magic circle of high politics once more and feeling seriously threatened, York and the Nevilles proceeded to arm and, on 22 May , successfully confronted their rivals at the first battle of St Albans. Although little more than a skirmish in the streets of an English market town between rival lords and their retinues, however, this fight is conventionally regarded as the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Again too, however, Henry's recovery put an end to that, not least as a result of the determination of his formidable queen, Margaret of Anjou.
By the autumn of , in fact, not only were York and his allies once more out of office but they had been largely replaced by men close to the queen. Thereafter, Margaret threw herself into factional politics with ever-mounting vigour; by she was ready for a further showdown; and, in the autumn of that year, civil strife erupted with a vengeance.
Indeed, in all probability, only Henry VI's own well-meaning if ultimately futile efforts to promote peace and reconciliation for instance, the so-called Loveday of March and the reluctance of the majority of the nobility to take up arms against their anointed king had prevented an earlier renewal of conflict. When, on 23 September , royal troops intercepted Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, in Staffordshire en route to join his son Warwick and Richard of York at Ludlow in Shropshire, the result was an indecisive engagement fought at Blore Heath near Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Soon afterwards the Coventry parliament or the Parliament of Devils as it was dubbed in Yorkist propaganda condemned them as traitors and declared their estates confiscated. Only force could now restore their position and so, in June , the Nevilles and Edward, Earl of March, sailed for south-eastern England and secured control of London.
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On 10 July, battle was joined once more outside Northampton. In another reversal of fortunes victory went to the Yorkist lords, Henry VI fell into their hands again! This seems to have taken virtually everyone by surprise. After a prolonged and probably heated debate in parliament, however, a compromise was cobbled together whereby Henry VI would retain the crown during his lifetime but, after his death, his son Edward of Lancaster would be disinherited in favour of the house of York. Ludlow Stalwart Lancastrians in general, and Queen Margaret of Anjou in particular, rejected the so-called Act of Accord out of hand and raised a new army.
On 30 December at Wakefield the wheel of fortune turned yet again. Richard of York was killed in the field; Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury was executed the following day; and, in January , the queen and her largely northern army marched south. London, however, baulked at the prospect of hosting so notoriously undisciplined an army.
Perhaps foolishly, the queen made no attempt to take the city by force but, instead, retreated back to the north. Meanwhile, Richard of York's eldest son Edward, Earl of March won the battle of Mortimer's Cross in Shropshire on 2 February, joined Warwick and, together, the two earls entered the capital amidst considerable enthusiasm. A few days later, on 4 March , the eighteen-year-old Edward was proclaimed king. At Towton near York on 29 March , indeed, he fought and won the biggest and bloodiest battle of the entire Wars of the Roses. Even after this great victory and the flight of Henry Vl, Margaret of Anjou and their son, Edward of Lancaster, to Scotland, however, the new king's position on the throne remained far from secure.
Lancastrian resistance to Yorkist rule continued, particularly in Wales and the north of England.
Competing claims to the throne and the beginning of civil war
Only when the Yorkists won a further major victory at Hexham in Northumberland in May , and Henry VI fell into their hands in Lancashire in July , did this phase of the Wars of the Roses come to an end. The earl's mounting discontent in the later s, however, eventually brought a renewal of civil war at the end of the decade.
Perhaps the origins of the rift can be found in Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in , the rise of the Woodville clan at court and, most particularly, Warwick's preference for an alliance with Louis XI of France rather than Burgundy scotched by the marriage of the king's sister Margaret to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in Against Edward's wishes his brother George, Duke of Clarence, married Warwick's daughter Isabel and, on 26 July , a Neville-sponsored northern rebellion culminated in a victory for the king's opponents at the battle of Edgecote and Edward's capture and imprisonment soon afterwards.
A few weeks later he was released, or escaped, and resumed his rule; moreover, the failure of another probably Neville-inspired rebellion in Lincolnshire in March resulting in the flight of both Warwick and Clarence to France seemed to mark the end of all the earl's hopes. Warwick and John are killed at the battle of Barnet.
The final battle of Tewkesbury. Fifth period : Reign of Edward IV It is a happy period of peace and reconstruction. The King governs with the help of his faithful and clever brother Richard.
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He dies unexpectedly of illness. Richard of Gloucester becomes king with the help of the Duke of Buckingham in place of his nephew and despite the opposition of Hastings. He kills his nephews. He crashes Buckingham uprising. He is killed by Henry, Earl of Richmond, at the battle of Bosworth.
Henry becomes Henry VII. He founds the Tudor dynasty. However we must not forget that he could not question the foundation of the Tudor dynasty ands its legitimity! This period will remain one of the most epic in the English history, even if it concerned principally the aristocracy the armies were small and one implicit rule was to kill the nobles, not the simple peasants. Henry VI The fighting went on for 10 exhausting hours—contemporary chroniclers claimed a nearby river ran red with blood—but the Yorkists eventually routed the Lancastrians, allowing Edward IV to tighten his grip on the throne.
While estimates of casualties at the Battle of Towton vary, it may have claimed as many as 40, lives—more than in any battle ever fought in Britain. Many key figures switched allegiances over the course of the conflict. Double-crossing was rampant during the Wars of the Roses, and many key battles turned on acts of treachery. The coup failed, so Warwick and Clarence fled to France, where they partnered with their former archenemy, the exiled Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou.
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These unlikely allies managed to briefly unseat King Edward during an invasion of England, but their triumph turned to defeat after Clarence defected back to the Yorkists and Warwick died in battle. The Wars led to one of the most perplexing disappearances in British history. Since Edward was only 12 years old, his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester was made protector of the realm until he came of age.
The clash ended in a decisive Tudor victory, and Richard III was killed during the fighting by a vicious blow to the head. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! Twice a week we compile our most fascinating features and deliver them straight to you.
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